Baku: The Europa League final on Wednesday will be as much about the future as it will be about a moment in history as Londoners Chelsea take on their city neighbours Arsenal, 4,600km away from the English capital in the controversial venue of the Olympic Stadium in the Azerbaijan city of Baku.
While much has been made about both European finals this season containing only English clubs — Liverpool take on Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League in Madrid on Saturday — the result in the continent’s second-tier tournament will go a long way to delivering a final verdict on the first-season report cards for both Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri and his Arsenal counterpart Unai Emery.
Both managers came in last summer with a mission to rebuild and cement their respective club’s place in the Premier League’s top four. Both struggled big time. It is somewhat remarkable that Sarri is still overseeing matters at the Stamford Bridge side given the shaky peg he has been on for most of the season, with calls for his head coming from pundits, fans and former players as early as September as the club lurched from one crisis to another both on the field and off. Sarri’s seeming refusal or inability to change his playing style won him few admirers, but having steadied the ship somewhat, scraping into the EPL top four and guiding the club to a European final has bought him some time.
It seems like it is the Gunners’ boss who has the mental edge going into the clash. Emery is something of a Europa League specialist, having won it three consecutive times with Sevilla from 2014-16. However, a cloud still hangs over him and the club and he will be desperate for a win in Baku for more than one reason. Yes, a trophy is a trophy, which always looks good on the CV, but as Arsenal only finished fifth in the league standings this season, the only way they will be in the Champions League next campaign is with a victory on Wednesday night in Baku — the Europa champions are guaranteed a berth in the elite competition next season.
“I want to do something important here, for example to play for this title. We have a big chance tomorrow for two targets, but the most important to win one title,” Emery said in Baku on Tuesday. “Each title is important for Arsenal. We want to enjoy this moment. We have the possibility to win a title, to play and enjoy.
Emery also had one optimistic eye on Champions League football next season, adding with a hint of mutual respect for his opponents: “This competition is improving a lot. In the last few years the final has been big teams. I hope that Chelsea v Arsenal can be a final in the Champions League in the future. They have the best players in the world in these two teams.”
A loss for Arsenal would be a tremendous dent in their plans for next season, as it would hurt their chances of luring the big names they need to reinforce their squad for an unlikely title tilt.
However, victory for Chelsea may not be enough to save Sarri from the chop as rumblings of discontent continue to surround Stamford Bridge, especially from demanding fans and an even more demanding owner in Roman Abramovich.
There is also the added factor of prodigal son Frank Lampard waiting in the wings after his Derby County side narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League when they lost 2-1 to Aston Villa in the Championship play-off on Monday. Another man who looks likely to depart Chelsea is star playmaker Eden Hazard. With Real Madrid again making overtures for his services it seems likely he will be heading for Spain. But the Belgian is determined to give the Chelsea fans something to cheer before he goes.
He is entering the final year of his Chelsea contract next season and has refused to sign an extension, meaning the London club could lose him for free if they do not sell him this year.
“That would be good, that would be a nice last trophy,” Hazard said. “If it is my last game, I hope to bring the trophy.
It is a European competition, so for me, for the club, for the manager, for the fans, it is something important.
“When you play a final, it does not matter whether it is the Champions League, Europa League or League Cup, you just want to win, you just want to bring the trophy home and celebrate that. So I stay in that mode: just thinking about football. After the final, we will see what happens.”
— With inputs from agencies